Last week I listened to a nice speech by the “curious journalist” Roberto Bonzio. He talked about his project Italiani di Frontiera and proposed a fascinating list of Italian characters who can boast histories of success abroad.
One especially impressed me for his relentless spirit of entrepreneurship.
Amadeo Giannini was a young independent banker, offering small loans mainly to a small community of people with his same Italian heritage. When a disastrous earthquake hit San Francisco in 1906, he started building his success story (and helped rebuilding the city) by making substantial loans to many hard-working people, as opposed to the usual bankers’ policy of servicing wealthy customers only.
This way, Mr Giannini basically invented what we currently call venture capital.
He kept financing risky projects through his entire life, meeting success and failure… and – I guess – treating these two impostors just the same.
It is told that when Amadeo Giannini died in 1949 at age 79, his personal fortune was relatively modest, but hundreds of ordinary people showed up at his funeral. Meanwhile his bank had become a giant, and is today the largest in the United States: have you ever seen Bank of America‘s logo around?
History says that Silicon Valley has experienced such a rapid growth, from agricultural land south of San Francisco to the world’s center of innovation, thanks to people like Amadeo Giannini: able to spread a sense of urgency for progress and risk-taking. Other examples include Stanford graduates like Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, who started a long tradition of successful tech companies founded in garages.
So, which is the answer to the title of this post? At the end of his second mandate, Tony Blair flew to Silicon Valley and asked the same question to company executives such as Apple’s Steve Jobs and Cisco’s John Chambers. They made him observe the strict relationship between university campuses and the corporate world, and emphasized the relentless pursuit of meritocracy.
So sad that Amadeo Giannini’s country of origin is still light-years far from that…